It only took eight days from the kickoff of the NFL’s regular season for the league to see its first coaching casualty: Greg Roman, the Buffalo Bills’ offensive coordinator. Head Coach Rex Ryan has since promoted running backs coach Anthony Lynn to take Roman’s place.
While this is notable for several reasons, mainly because coordinators are rarely fired after two games, Ryan’s choice — whether he knew it or not — bucked a surprising trend of promoting a black coach to coordinator.
Although the NFL’s Rooney Rule has been in place for 13 years and requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coach and senior front office positions, its successes often seem limited or waning. It is time to revamp it so the rule achieves its purpose more effectively.
Research conducted in part by Georgetown professor Christopher Rider has shown that white assistant coaches are more than twice as likely to receive promotions to become coordinators than are similar black assistants even after controlling for performance. In a way, this is not surprising.
Coordination positions are not subject to the Rooney Rule, and, for those that are, some teams will go through the motions of interviewing a minority candidate even though the desired person is already known. The Denver Broncos are the case in point.
After firing John Fox after the 2014 season, rumors quickly arose that Denver Broncos’ General Manager and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway wanted to hire then-Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to be the head coach.
This surprised almost no one because Kubiak was Elway’s backup when they played together in Denver ,and they had also been roommates. Kubiak was Denver’s offensive coordinator when Elway won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998, and the two remained close after Elway retired. It was essentially nepotism.
To fulfill the Rooney Rule, the Broncos interviewed Vance Joseph, then the defensive backs coach in Cincinnati. No one, however, realistically thought Denver would offer Joseph the job — the interview took place because it had to. In a nutshell, that is how teams skirt the Rooney Rule.
With all of this said, there are still very legitimate reasons teams choose coaches and coordinators aside from color. I would hope and probably assert that color has very little to do with the causal reason the NFL is approximately 70 percent black and has a disproportionate lack of black coaches and coordinators.
The biggest step the league could take is making the Rooney Rule apply to coordinator positions. Coordinator positions are often a gateway to head coaching jobs, so guaranteeing minority candidates an interview can only help.
Another problem that makes improving the rule somewhat difficult is the recycled nature of NFL coaches. Just because a coach was fired in one place does not mean that he is necessarily a bad coach.
Again, using the Denver Broncos as an example, its defensive coordinator was fired by both the Houston Texans and the Dallas Cowboys before leading a historically great Super Bowl-winning defense — one team’s trash is truly another one’s treasure. The problem is getting minority coaches in the door so they can begin to enjoy the benefits of that cycle.
The NFL makes a good faith effort to hold teams to the spirit of the rule: There are some checks against sham interviews, and the NFL has issued fines to teams in the past for failing to uphold the spirit of the Rooney Rule.
Unfortunately, $200,000 is not much to a team and owner worth $2 billion. At the same time, the NFL has also rejected the inclusion of coordinators under the Rooney Rule as recently as 2013.
There are clear reasons why head coaches should be allowed to choose their own coordinators and staff, but there still is no harm in hearing new ideas and strategies from different coaches.
At worst, mandating that head coaches consider a minority candidate for coordinator positions is one more interview they have to conduct, and at best the coach is won over enough in the interview and hires the candidate. In that case, everybody wins.
The head coach fills his vacancy with the best candidate, a minority coach becomes a coordinator and gains access to the head coaching pipeline and by virtue of the solid hire the team’s prospects for winning increase.
Improving the Rooney Rule would also decrease the nepotism that is all too prevalent in the NFL. Sons or siblings of current and past NFL coaches have a de facto golden ticket into coaching circles if they want, almost regardless of performance.
Kyle Shanahan, Brian Schottenheimer and Rob Ryan, who are all current coaches and the sons of former NFL head coaches, are solidly mediocre coaches or coordinators at best — the results speak for themselves, yet these men are perpetually employed.
For their own sake, teams should stop looking at the children of successful coaches and focus on finding coaches who can actually be successful.
In a league where the overwhelming majority of owners are elderly white billionaires, it is time to stop counting on their ability to change. The NFL must take leadership of this issue and force the change for themselves.